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Poacher Turned Gamekeeper

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Duck busted his first poacher a week into the job. He stepped out of the woods next to one of the creeks that fed the Greenbrier river, and found himself looking at a heavyset man, lying on his side on the bank, arm dangling up to the shoulder in the water. Tickling fish – fishing without tackle – usually meant fishing without a license. Duck hadn’t really expected this kind of thing to be an issue, but then some people will break rules just for fun.

He honestly felt a little awkward about it, new in town and about to march up and tell someone who might have been born and raised there that he couldn’t catch himself a fish. But the rules were there for a reason.

‘Pardon me, sir, but can I see your license?’ he said.

The man jumped violently and rolled to face him. Duck recognised him as Ned Chicane. Another relative newcomer to the town, so he’d heard. No ancestral fishing tradition, then.

‘Ah, the forestry!’ Ned exclaimed, the loudness of his voice not quite hiding his startledness. ‘You came out of those woods as quietly as a ghost!’

‘Guess I did.’ Duck scratched his nose.

‘You’re the new ranger,’ Ned said. ‘Fig Newton?’

‘Duck.’

Duck,’ Ned said, rolling the name around his mouth as though trying it out.

‘And you’re, uh, Ned Chicane,’ Duck said. ‘Saw you at the Christmas do up at the lodge. We weren’t introduced though. You own the Cryptonomica, right?’

‘Right. You left early.’

‘Up with the sun at this job. Early to bed; you know how it goes. Now, partner, you know it ain’t legal to fish here without the proper license, right?’

‘Do you know,’ Ned said, patting his pockets desultorily, ‘I don’t seem to have mine on me. I’ll be darned.’

‘I know it seems silly, but imagine if we didn’t keep track of who was fishing here. Pretty soon there’d be none left.’

‘Of course, of course.’ Ned waved his hands in an expansive gesture: say no more.

‘I’ll have to write this up,’ Duck pressed on, fumbling in his pocket for his notebook.

‘Do you?’ Ned asked. He had a vague twinkle in his eye. ‘Can you prove that I wasn’t merely cooling my arm in the stream?’

‘Well, I suppose I can’t, at that,’ Duck said.

‘Some find the water a little chilly at this time of year, but I consider it very refreshing.’

‘Bracing,’ Duck agreed.

‘That’s the word. Ranger Newton, would you object if I continued to sit here for a little while and take in the view?’

‘Not at all,’ Duck said. ‘Would you object if I survey the reed growth while I’m here?’

‘Oh no, please.’

‘I won’t disturb you none?’

‘Feel free, feel free!’ Ned said, waving his hands again. He shuffled around to sit facing the creek, leaning back with his hands on the ground behind him. Duck crouched and began to examine the reeds.

Their stand-off lasted a full forty-five minutes. Duck would have lost – he had other work to do, while Ned just had a point to score – if it hadn’t started to rain. Ned gathered himself up and left, with a lot of grumbling about the weather and baleful, amused and grudgingly respectful glanced at Duck. Duck just carried on cataloguing plants, the rain pattering on the brim of his hat.

*     *     *

They met again a few weeks later, close to the same spot. Ned saw Duck coming this time, and immediately flipped his license card out of his pocket with a raised eyebrow.

‘I’m off duty,’ Duck said. He’d come down to fish himself. ‘But I’m glad to see you’ve got your paperwork in order.’

‘Indeed,’ Ned said. ‘I was so inspired by your speech on the importance of fish stocking…that I felt very glad I had already obtained the proper license.’

‘Forgive me for preaching to the choir,’ Duck said, setting down his rod.

‘It never hurts to be reminded of why we uphold our sacred laws,’ Ned said. ‘You’re really gonna set up right on top of me, huh?’

‘This is a good spot,’ Duck said mildly. ‘Besides, there’s no hard feelings, right?’

‘Oh, none at all!’ Ned said. ‘We are two players in a struggle as old as the ownership of land. You did your part, and did it well. To be bested by a worthy opponent is no disgrace.’

‘Well, that’s very kind of you, I’m sure,’ Duck said.

‘Not that I was poaching.’

‘Of course not. Say, can you really catch fish bare-handed?’

‘You’re interested in the more obscure branches of the art of fishing?’ Ned asked.

‘Sure. You never heard of poacher turned gamekeeper?’

‘I have. I also doubt you’ve ever poached anything in your life.’

‘You’d be right in that regard,’ Duck said. ‘So, how d’you tickle a fish? What’s the knack?’

‘Same as line fishing. That is to say, dumb luck.’

‘There’s skill in line fishing,’ Duck said.

‘Oh yeah? And how’s that?’

Duck flicked his rod, sending the line unspooling like gossamer across the creek. The hook landed just shy of the reeds on the opposite bank. He reeled it back, skimming the lure across the surface of the water.

‘Beautiful cast,’ Ned said, ‘but fish have minds of their own. No, tickling’s just about lying for a long time in a very uncomfortable position.’

He settled himself on the bank and stuck his arm into the water.

‘How do you get them to come to you without bait?’ Duck asked after a few minutes’ silence.

‘I guess you move your hand a little, try to attract their attention.’

‘But if you move too much you’ll just scare them off.’

‘Exactly. You gotta look delicious. Believe you’re a water bug. Do a little method acting.’

‘Uh-huh…’ Duck said dubiously. Ned was staring down into the water, his hand swaying gently, with the occasional little twitch and jerk. Duck looked too. As his eyes became accustomed to peering through the brown water, he could make out big fish, floating on the bottom, mouths and fins stirring slowly.

It was beautifully quiet by the creek, only the occasional ambient noise disturbing the stillness. Now and then a fish jumped, snapping at a flying insect. The whole creek had to be chock full. Once Duck thought he felt a bite, but nothing came of it.

‘Here he comes…’ Ned whispered. He had a fish nibbling at his fingers.

‘Now,’ Ned said, in a low, focussed voice, ‘you don’t move too early…and when you do, go for the gills…’

Somewhere, a bird rustled its wings. Sunbeams moved across the water.

Ned lunged. He moved so suddenly that Duck jumped in shock. For a moment he seemed about to tumble into the stream. There was a loud splash; water sprayed everywhere. And then Ned was standing up, holding a flapping fish aloft by the gills.

‘Hot damn!’ Duck exclaimed, on his feet as well. ‘Holy shit!’

‘Gotcha!’ Ned said. He killed the fish cleanly, putting a thumb into its mouth and snapping its neck back. ‘That’s a big sucker.’

‘Fine catch,’ Duck said. ‘You’ve scattered the shoal, though.’

‘Sorry about that,’ Ned said with a grimace. ‘Sit quietly and they’ll come back.’

‘Nah, reckon I’m done for today,’ Duck said, winding up his rod. ‘I’m not going to beat that catch.’

‘C’mon then, I could do with a drink,’ Ned said, tossing his fish into a cool box.

The shadows were lengthening as they hiked back up the trail to the Amnesty lodge. Ned ordered them sweet apple cider at the bar.

‘So, you’re new in town,’ he said once they were settled. ‘Or new-ish; you’ve maintained your novelty by keeping out of the public eye! But you’re from around here, right; you’ve got the accent.’

‘Grew up a ways east of here,’ Duck said. ‘But then I studied in New York state, took a few different jobs around the states before this one.’

‘So you got out just to come back?’

‘I don’t look on it that way. We’ve got some of the most beautiful forests in the states, y’know. So, how’d you come to be here?’ Duck asked.

‘I’m hiding from felony charges in three different states,’ Ned said, sipping his cider. There was a pause. ‘Hmm. No reaction to that one, huh?’

‘I doubt you’d say it if it were true, but it’s not a very funny joke.’

‘You don’t think so? I’m a man who loves to cloak himself in mystery, but this particular rumour was not of my own invention. You haven’t had it from the denizens of our fine town?’

‘I don’t listen to gossip,’ Duck said.

‘Don’t know when you’d have the chance,’ Ned said. ‘Do you know we’ve hardly clapped eyes on you outside the forest or the station since you arrived? Why d’you never come to town?’

‘I came to that Christmas do,’ Duck said. Ned burst out laughing.

‘You’ve proved my point,’ he said. ‘Guys who come to one party and cite it for the rest of their lives. Do you know, I’ve had half a mind to make an exhibit on you?’

‘Exhibit?’

‘At the Cryptonomica. Close-knit town like this, anybody who doesn’t mingle practically becomes a local cryptid. I’ve considered several angles. Escaped alien, animal spirit, sparkly vampire…’

Duck glared.

‘Well, if you spend your life brooding in the forest then what do you expect?’ Ned said. ‘You sure you don’t have any sort of dark past that I can work with?’

‘The darkest thing that ever happened to me was a seagull knocking over my ice cream cone in third grade,’ Duck said flatly.

‘A plague on all men with happy childhoods!’ Ned said. ‘By the way, I’ve been meaning to ask you folks up at the station. Have you considered mixing a little more mystery into your tours? Give the tourists a sense of something larger, of the unstudied wonders our precious wildernesses hold…’

‘What, tell them I’ve seen Bigfoot to drum up business for your museum? Nope.’

‘So honoured am I to hear you acknowledge that it is a museum, and not a shop,’ Ned said, ‘that I forgive you your hasty refusal. Come on, how about…panthers! There could be panthers in Virginia, you know! Tell ’em you’ve seen a panther.’

‘And that I’ve seen her turn into a woman when the wind is in the east?’ Duck said. ‘And that I never come into town because she’s afraid I’ll betray her secret whenever I’m around humans?’

‘Damn, you should have my job!’

‘I don’t think so. I’ve got a responsibility to present the facts. I’m an educator.’

‘You’re no fun is what you are.’

‘That’s a just remark,’ Duck said. ‘I’ll take it.’ He finished his cider and pushed back his chair. ‘Guess I oughta come by your museum sometime. Seems like kind of an institution. Though I’m sure it’ll ruin your Duck Newton exhibit if I show up in the flesh.’

‘Come now,’ Ned said. ‘I’ll show you round.’

‘You sure?’ Duck said, surprised. ‘I don’t want to trespass on your evening…’

‘It’s no trespass at all,’ Ned said. ‘But I hope you don’t scare easy. The after-hours tour is a truly chilling experience.’

‘I’m sure I’ll cope. I’ve been alone in the woods at night.’

‘Pah, that’s nothing. They don’t even have panthers, I’ve heard.’

Duck felt a little awkward as Ned unlocked the door to the Cryptonomica. He’d expected it all to be amateurish and far-fetched, the opposite of the kind of thing he went in for. But as they stepped into the shop, he actually felt a shiver run down his spine. The dusky shadows slanting off strange objects, the creak of the wooden door, just the inherent wrongness of being in a business after hours…then Ned flicked on the light, and Duck got a good view of the first exhibit and burst out laughing.

‘Pearls before swine,’ Ned said mournfully. ‘You’re not the first to laugh in the face of mystery.’

‘She looks like a southern belle!’ Duck laughed. The cider had been non-alcoholic, but he was feeling buzzed just the same; the placebo effect of sitting in a bar and then walking home with a stranger in the dark. The exhibit was based on a stuffed guinea pig, he’d have guessed, but with silken hair over a foot long trailing around it on all sides. And it was looking over its shoulder. Somehow its expression managed to be haughty.

‘She is a belle,’ Ned said. ‘A real lady. Mistress of the shop. Museum.’

Duck pulled himself together and walked over to examine a series of skulls in cases.

‘Now these are real bears,’ he said.

‘Everything in here is real,’ Ned said. ‘And I’ve got all the proper paperwork for those in the Chicanery, before you ask.’

‘Kodiak, grizzly, black,’ Duck listed off.

‘You’re not reading the signs.’

‘I like zoology. Don’t recognise this one on the end.’

‘Oh, that’s the yeti,’ Ned said.

‘Beg pardon?’

‘Most reports of the humanoid yeti come from hikers who’ve seen the animal rearing on its hind legs,’ Ned said, ‘but the yeti is actually most closely related to the American polar bear. It’s a relic of the ice age, of course, like the mammoth and mastodon. Note the enlarged nasal cavity, for warming the air during inhalation.’

‘I can’t see the joins…’ Duck said, peering into the case.

‘What joins?’

‘Where the skull’s been modified.’

‘All the skulls in this row are genuine.’

‘So you’re saying there’s a half-man, half-bear monster wandering around the US mountain ranges?’

‘Don’t be absurd!’ Ned exclaimed. ‘No such thing as monsters. It’s just a subspecies of bear.’

Duck looked at Ned hard. He had to be lying. But Duck had seen him lie. He was a terrible liar. If he was lying now, there were no tells.

Ned looked him in the eye for a long moment, then grinned broadly.

‘Didn’t think you’d be such an easy mark,’ he said.

Duck laughed ruefully. ‘We’ve never got the resources for half the studies we want to do,’ he said. ‘Who knows what kind of biodiversity we’ve got out there?’

‘Who knows, indeed,’ Ned said, and put his hand on Duck’s. The gesture was unmissable and unmistakable. Duck froze.

‘Sorry,’ Ned said, stepping back to bustle around a shelf of rocks and giving Duck about ten feet of space in the process. ‘I overstepped.’

‘No, I –’ Duck cleared his throat. ‘I’m gay.’

‘I figured, but that doesn’t mean you have to hold my hand,’ Ned said.

‘I know…’ Duck said. Now that the initial surprise was over, his mind was starting to work again. This sort of thing had been much easier in college. At that age everyone, deep down, believed they were a chosen one with a magical destiny. But since then he’d had his work cut out, what with trying to cope with dreams so vivid they almost deserved the term hallucination, and trying to find a way of being around people that he could live with, not to mention actually studying for his job, which had been damned hard work…it had been a long time since he’d asked himself whether he’d actually like to put his hands on someone.

‘I’ve taken a shine to you, Duck; I don’t mind admitting it,’ Ned said, ‘but like you said, no hard feelings, either way.’

‘I’m not sure what I want,’ Duck said frankly.

Ned turned around. He was holding an electric kettle.

‘You could sit on the couch and drink some tea and think it over?’ he suggested. ‘I’m in no hurry either way.’

‘Alright,’ Duck said. ‘Yeah. Sounds good.’

Another reason Duck preferred his own company: he knew he charmed people. Blunt and law-abiding though he was, somehow he made people like him. It was hurtful in a way he’d never be able to explain, to set out to earn someone’s trust and then turn around and find that they’d handed it to him, for no reason. Like they were all on the same side as that voice that kept saying he wasn’t ordinary when he knew damned well that he was. But for all Ned had taken a liking to him so quickly, he didn’t think he was charming Ned. He was honestly a little charmed by Ned.

He settled himself on the couch, pressed right into the corner where he felt enclosed and safe. Maybe he really hadn’t been seeing enough of people, if being flirted with had him this rattled. A part of him wanted to just make his excuses and leave. But he’d been enjoying talking. He’d been having fun. He wasn’t going to run away.

‘You travelled much?’ Ned asked, handing him a mug of tea. Obvious ice-breaker.

‘Round the US, yes,’ Duck said. ‘Never been abroad.’

Ned put down his tea. ‘What, never?

‘Nope.’

‘Why not? You never even went on a shitty package tour to Prague or something?’

‘I’m interested in American ecology. We’ve got a wide variety of biomes, you know.’

‘Biomes. Sure. God.’

‘How’s about you?’

‘Been all over. I’ve hitchhiked to Russia.’

It was Duck’s turn to put down his tea.

‘How d’you hitchhike to Russia?’ he demanded.

‘Walk with sufficient authority and they’ll let you into the VIP departure lounge. Then I got talking to some Russian men who owned a private plane. I told them my family were Russian emigrants who’d thrown in their lot with the capitalists. Said I was a PhD student who’d decided to carry out my world-changing research at a Moscow university, but my reactionary parents had confiscated my plane ticket at the last moment and so I was in need of assistance.’

‘And did they believe you?’ Duck asked.

‘Not for a moment. But they liked the story so much they offered me a seat on their plane anyway.’

‘So how was Russia?’

‘Very lovely, the square kilometre or so of it that I saw. I got arrested the moment we landed for entering the country without a visa. But, being men of good fortune, my Russian benefactors were friends with the authorities. The police simply entertained me for twenty four hours and then put me on the next flight home.’

Duck shook his head. ‘I don’t even know if I believe you,’ he said.

‘What are you, a historian?’ Ned scoffed. ‘Just do as those Russians did, and enjoy the story. The owner of the plane also owned quite a lot of parkland, and a menagerie on it. I remember two wonderful bears. He took me to see them, under armed escort of course. I told them that bears were the one point on which the USA could boast equality with the USSR. I’d imagine you must be pretty familiar with bears, in your line of work?’

‘Pretty familiar, yeah,’ Duck agreed.

‘Have you had any remarkable experiences with the animals?’

‘You don’t bother them, they don’t bother you.’

‘It’s like getting blood out of a stone!’ Ned exclaimed. ‘Give me an anecdote, for the love of God!’

Duck shrugged. ‘Guess I got used to them,’ he said.

‘Fine,’ Ned said. ‘I’ll interrogate you. What’s the closest you’ve ever been to a bear?’

‘Had one stand on top of me once,’ Duck said.

Ned threw his hands up in exasperation.

‘On top of you? And you didn’t think that would be worth a mention? Elaborate, I insist!’

Duck grinned. ‘Alright. So I was leading this hiking group. Tourists, a couple of kilometres, nothing major. This was my first job in North Carolina, not here. You know what the animals can get like along the popular trails. People think they’re pets, try to feed ’em; next thing you know they get aggressive if you don’t.’

Ned waved his hand. ‘Yeah, I get the message. Skip to the part where a bear tries to eat your face, please.’

‘Okay, okay. So, out of nowhere, right, this bear steps onto the path. Big ursus americanus; black bear, y’know; beautiful specimen. He steps onto the path, as I said, and the hikers, well, they’re not expecting to see such a big guy up close.’

‘So they all panicked?’ Ned guessed.

‘So I said to them, “stand still or you’ll scare him away”. Makes them more confident, you see, if you frame it that the animal’s scared, not them. And the bear walks towards us, and I realise, shit, it’s a bold one, probably been fed, too used to humans. And I ask everyone to back up a pace.’

Duck paused and took a sip of his tea.

‘So this big boy steps up, rubs his head right up on me. He gives a push, a fraction of what he’s capable of, mind you, and I go flat on my back.’

‘So then they panicked?’

‘So I said “oof” like it was all a bit of rough-and-tumble, because I’m still more worried about the tourists than the bear. And one or two of them actually laughed. Then this boy put a paw on me, and remember they can get up to three hundred pounds, easy.’

‘Were you scared?’

‘I wasn’t much of anything, to be honest. I just kept real still. He put his head down, he was sniffing my chest, I was thinking, is this it? You know, they gave us such short breaks at that place. You hardly had time for a bite to eat between one tour and the next.

‘God almighty, never mind your breaks!’ Ned exclaimed. ‘Tell me what happened, I beg you!’

‘He sniffs my chest,’ Duck says, ‘he puts his nose into my breast pocket, and he pulls out my granola bar. It was the good kind, name brand, three kinds of nuts. I had time for one bite of it, I tell you, one bite. Bear got the rest. Pulled it out of my pocket, even shucked the wrapper, and off he goes.’

Ned snorted. ‘That’s bullshit!’ he said. ‘How does a bear shuck a wrapper?’

‘Like I told you, I opened it and took a bite,’ Duck said.

Ned blinked at him. ‘Damn,’ he said. ‘Wow. Every word of that was true, wasn’t it?’

‘Yep,’ Duck said. His face broke into a smile that kept widening until he was grinning broadly. He felt warm and good, sitting there with friendly company and a story he’d just told well. Warm enough to lean forward and try pressing a kiss to Ned’s lips.

It was a sudden thing, but Ned caught on at once, bringing his hand up to cup Duck’s cheek, tilting his head to get the angle right. He kissed wetter than Duck was used to, but it wasn’t bad. He knew how to use his tongue. They kissed for a long moment, then broke apart to breathe. Duck found that he was breathing fast. How long had it been since he had taken a chance, reached across to somebody like that? The whole scene felt so at odds; their ordinary, grown-up bodies in this ordinary, grown-up house, and then his heart, skipping like a teenager’s heart, racing in his chest over a kiss.

Ned was leaning into him again. Duck went to meet him, acutely aware of the warm palm against his cheek. He moved a hand tentatively to Ned’s chest, and Ned immediately covered it with his own and squeezed. Ned’s tongue brushed his lower lip and he shivered. Ned was licking into his mouth, slowly laying him open, and he was letting it happen, relaxing back into the arm of the sofa, eyes falling shut. Ned’s lips slid across his cheek to his ear and then down, kissing the small portion of neck that showed above the collar of his shirt.

‘Hang on,’ Duck muttered. He worked his hands between them and undid the top button of his khaki work shirt, folding his collar back. He felt as exposed as if he’d just stripped the whole shirt off. God, but he’d almost forgotten he even had a body.

Ned burrowed into the side of his neck. His beard tickled. Duck breathed out, and his breath caught in the back of his throat and came out as a sound, just the barest of sighs, and Ned put his arms around him and squeezed him tight and moved over him, and now they were half-lying, Duck with eyes closed and head thrown back, gasping as Ned sent tingles flooding down his spine with every kiss to his neck.

He felt like he ought to be doing something, kissing him back, but Ned really wasn’t giving him much of an opening. Besides, it felt good, to lie still and be made much of. Ned eventually drew back, and Duck moved with him, coming back to sitting. He reached for Ned’s face and found that his hands were shaking. He drew a breath, and the breath stuttered slightly. It had been so long since he’d kissed someone.

‘Want to take this somewhere more comfortable?’ Ned asked.

‘Sure,’ Duck said. His voice came out hoarse. He swallowed.

‘You still don’t gotta decide.’

‘I know.’

Ned’s bedroom was cluttered. Half-finished pieces of whittling, papers, fake fur and craft supplies that Duck assumed had something to do with the museum. Stacks and stacks of paperback books – history, fantasy and science fiction – stacked up on the shelf, on the desk, beside the bed. The bed was covered by a heavy patchwork quilt. It had either been hand-stitched over months and years using the scraps from other sewing projects, or made to look like it had. Looking at it made Duck ache for that kind of deep-rooted domesticity. Hobbies, heirlooms, extended family all on one spot. Though by all accounts that wasn’t Ned’s story, whatever the bedspread said. He was a newcomer here too, and his past was a closed book. Dodgy dealings, was the town consensus; something to hide. But right now, Duck couldn’t believe it was anything too terrible. Ned was welcoming; Ned was kind. He was pressing in behind him, kissing his neck again, his hands sliding over his chest, rucking up the fabric of his shirt.

‘You really like that, huh?’ he murmured. Duck arched his back in response, pressing his chest into Ned’s hands, offering his neck.

‘Gonna get you out of this, okay?’ Ned said, hands moving to unbutton his shirt.

They ended up on top of that patchwork quilt, kissing slowly, shirts on the floor. Duck let himself melt, loose-limbed and easy, Ned’s big soft body pressing down on him, Ned’s mouth working over his chest. The skin of his jaw felt hot and tender from Ned’s beard.

‘I liked you right away, y’know,’ Ned said in his ear. His voice had dropped an octave; it was soft and husky and made Duck shiver. ‘Saw you walking out of the woods and I said to myself, oh, he’s real cute.’

‘Liar,’ Duck said. ‘I ruined your whole day.’

‘Well, a man likes to be crossed from time to time.’

‘You saying I should play harder to get?’ Duck asked.

‘No, don’t tease,’ Ned whispered. ‘Stay, stay here and make it with me…’

‘Okay,’ Duck said, voice cracking. The praise had him weak.

Ned’s hand slid down over the front of his pants. Duck moaned. It was all so easy; no tricks, no pain, no spice, just a hand moving exactly how he liked it, bringing him quickly and deliciously over the edge. He lay still for a moment, grappling with the unfamiliar feeling of wellbeing in all his limbs, shocked, not by the intimacy of Ned’s hand on him, but by the intimacy of Ned’s breath on his neck.

‘You’re lovely,’ Ned told him. Duck rolled them over, putting himself on top.

‘You got any condoms?’ he asked.

‘Bedside drawer. Check the date, though; it’s been a while.’

Duck found what he was looking for and slid down the bed. As he breathed the smell of Ned’s body, loneliness suddenly caught him, like a fishhook in his chest. He didn’t want to be alone; he wanted this, but even in the midst of it he didn’t know how to turn it into something he could keep. Ned’s thighs closing him in felt like safety, and the way he moved under Duck’s lips and tongue felt like understanding. It would have to do.

At least Ned seemed happy. Duck remembered that he’d been good at this, back in the day. Ned pressed up against him, then fell back with a curse. Duck lay between his thighs, kissing his belly, waiting for both of them to catch their breath.

After a moment Ned got up and brought Duck a glass of water and a large checked handkerchief to wipe himself down with. Then he climbed back into bed and threw the quilt over them both.

Duck lay on his side in the twilit room, frowning faintly as Ned settled in beside him. What happened now? He was positive that Ned would cuddle with him if he wanted to, but he didn’t know how to start. So he lay still, a hand’s breadth away, not touching, mind working.

‘Y’know,’ Ned said, ‘it’s normal to have trouble accepting who you’re supposed to be.’

Duck’s hand fisted in the quilt as a wave of emotion ripped through him. He realised it was fury, so hot and sudden he’d hardly recognised it. If this was another of Minerva’s plays, if she’d engineered everything that had happened somehow to set up another harangue about destiny

‘I’m just saying,’ Ned went on, oblivious, ‘sure, there’s been progress, but it’s still tough, being a gay guy. Hell, I’m forty-odd and it’s hard sometimes, thinking this is real, this is how it’s going to be.’

‘Oh!’ Duck said. Wrong end of the stick. Nothing to do with Minerva. And all that had just been dreams anyway, he reminded himself. He’d decided they were just dreams. ‘I, uh, no. I know who I am, I reckon. I’m fine with it.’

‘Well, good for you,’ Ned said, but he sounded speculative. He rolled on his side to face Duck, his expression mussed with afterglow, but still shrewd. ‘You alright?’

Duck thought. How to put into words the mess of things he was feeling?

‘I came here to be alone,’ he tried.

‘A little self-imposed exile?’ Ned said. ‘I’ve been there.’

Duck quirked a smile. ‘You are there, from what I’ve pieced together.’

Ned laughed. ‘That’s true enough,’ he said. ‘Listen, let’s get a beer next Friday. No strings attached.’

‘It’d be my pleasure,’ Duck said, and found he meant it.

‘Even the strictest hermit still needs to mingle in society occasionally,’ Ned said.

They never slept together again, but they met almost every week. And nearly a decade later, the day the world stopped (or started) making sense, Duck realised that somehow Ned had become his best friend, and Kepler had become his home.